Books | Comedy | Film

August 16, 2005

What Does Kill It, Makes It Stronger

What do Yo Mama and The Aristocrats have in common, besides bestiality?

David Goldenberg

Yo mama is a woman named Winifred Jones. Yo mama has a good friend named Fleatrice. Yo mama's so overweight, she has been court-ordered to remove the "Lose Weight Now, Ask Me How" bumper sicker she affixed to her car. See Herbalife v. Jones, 12 F. Supp 143 (So. Ga. 1996).

A Portrait of Yo Mama as a Young Man
Yo mama says she "play[s] chicken with" Amish buggies, but really she's driving straight at them and they're trying to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
Or so say Andrew Barlow and Kent Roberts in their new book, A Portrait of Yo Mama as a Young Man, which is conspiring with the hit documentary The Aristocrats to show that jokes can be killed, revived, killed again, and then revived again, stronger, stranger, and more disgusting than ever. Kind of like Yo mama. But I digress.

As the New York Times reminded us a few months ago, jokes are dead, replaced by ironic observations and John Stewart's twisting eyebrows. The writer of the piece (mirrored at, Warren St. John (who seems to have cornered the market on writing about silly stuff for the Grey Lady, by the way), cites the threat of nuclear annihilation, the spread of the internet, and political correctness for the joke's untimely passing. The idea that he only touches on, though—and that these two works prove—is that telling a joke—unlike, say, making a sly reference to Robin Williams, an electric shaver, and a small mountain of coke—takes serious balls.

And don't give me this crap that a "Yo mama" joke is not actually a joke. The minute you let those two little words loose, you are raising expectations and thereby setting yourself up for failure. Perhaps not as much as saying, "So this guy walks into a talent agency," as is the setup for The Aristocrats joke, and considerably less than, "So a boy goes to the circus" of Fuck You, Clown fame, but it's still a risk, and you could still bomb terribly.

And many of the "Yo mama" jokes in A Portrait of Yo Mama do bomb. For example, you definitely have to be in a peculiar frame of mind to enjoy, "Yo mama killed three teenagers in her last drunk-driving accident." But that's a good thing. Making a joke stale, uncomfortable, and slightly off-putting is the first step towards its resurrection. In The Aristocrats, Richard Lewis calls the joke—in which a man blithely describes his family's act, which generally consists of incest, bestiality, and excrement, to a talent agency scout—"a piece of shit," and then proceeds to wax poetically about it.

By letting it all hang out, Barlow and Roberts, as well as The Aristocrats' Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, show that the way to make a joke work is to beat it to death—and then keep on beating.

It helps that these two jokes "make their own gravy," as Michael McKean says in the film. In the case of The Aristocrats, the description of the act is the joke, and the punch line is at most an afterthought. "Yo mama" jokes don't even have a structure, much less a punch line, and Barlow and Roberts show that they don't even have to be about Yo mama. (One of my favorites has to do with a certain famous cellist.)

In fact, Barlow, who contribues humor pieces to the New Yorker, and Roberts, who writes for The Onion, even rob the joke of its two-word intro, inserting chapters into their book containing elaborate charts tracking lies Yo mama tells, her internet search history (consisting of, among other things, van buren + bullwhip + francis scott key and van buren + bullwhip + franfcis scott key), and the Yo Mama Assessment Test (YMAT).

The Aristocrats
Yes, he did say "blackface routine."
Some of the best renditions of The Aristocrats joke are also the most innovative: There's a card magician who gives new meaning to the phrase "all fours," a perverted mime, a cartoon starring South Park's Cartman, and Sarah Silverman, who contends that as a young girl she was a member of her family's despicable circus act.

Certainly, there are downsides to this strategy of overload and repeat. Gilbert Gottfried's brave performance of the joke at the Hugh Hefner roast just days after Sept. 11 is less impressive after an hour of more innovative and disgusting versions in the film. (In Gregg Rogell's account, the act "ends with a big circle jerk around grandma. And here's the kicker: Grandma is dead.") And Barlow and Roberts's prolific use of footnotes—at first genius—wears thin after 189 pages.

But other references just get funnier, like Yo mama's strange affinity for wolves, and the comics' repeated references to liquid explosions of Gallagher-esque proportions in the film. And by the time both the book and the film are done, the jokes on which they are based— having been dissected, stretched, rearranged, and trampled—are more hilarious than ever.

The joke is not dead, it just hasn't been beaten enough. At the end of the movie, John Stewart turns toward the camera and says of the Aristocrats joke, "I think it's best if you don't break it down." With that, he twists his eyebrows and looks away, probably praying that no one catches on.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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